By Doug Hansen
Shortly after breakfast, 10 of us donned bright-red life jackets and cruised slowly across the misty inlet to begin our rainforest hike. Since bears outnumber people in this remote British Columbia wilderness, our guide sternly warned us, "If we encounter a grizzly bear, don't run! Just stand still and talk to it in a calm, soothing voice." I wondered how calmly our group would act if this situation arose, but fortunately we didn't have to find out.
Seeing wild grizzlies was precisely why I had come to Knight Inlet Lodge. Located 150 miles northwest of Vancouver, the lodge draws eco-tourists from around the world who want to savor its stunning scenery and abundant wildlife during a short window of opportunity — May 30 to Oct.16.
Originally built in the 1930s as a fishing camp, this one-story lodge floats serenely at the base of forest-clad mountains towering over the milky-green, glacier-fed waters of Knight Inlet. In 1998 the new owner converted it into the first of only four dedicated grizzly-viewing lodges in British Columbia.
"Three things make our lodge special," said Phil Bergman, the marketing director. "Knight Inlet has the best grizzly-bear viewing in B.C.; the owners are leaders in preserving the bears through their "Stop the Hunt" campaign; and the lodge runs in an environmentally responsible manner."
Being in this special place was so important to me that I decided to visit the lodge twice to see whether it was better to come early in the season when the cubs and moms appeared or later when the bears were catching salmon.
During my first visit in mid-June, my wife and I spent two splendid days at Knight Inlet. Our adventure began with a 30-minute seaplane flight to the lodge that gave us spectacular views of mountains, forests and fjords.
After we stowed our luggage in our modest but comfortable room we toured the lodge with its affable manager, Brian Collen, who only half-facetiously proclaimed, "Our goal is to keep you busy between meals." No guest goes hungry. At breakfast, for example, I counted more than 20 food choices. Dinners, with ample complimentary red or white wine, were always a culinary delight.
A wide range of activities, including hikes, boat tours, kayaking and bear-viewing meant we were never bored. We reveled in the glorious sunshine while we hiked on the fern- and moss-lined Rainforest Trail, toured the 78-mile inlet by speedboat and cruised the nearby estuary to watch as young, lean bears fed on the tall grass (Lyngbye's sedge) in lieu of salmon, which hadn't yet arrived. While we thoroughly enjoyed our visit, I came away from the trip anxious to see more grizzlies during the fall salmon run.
When I returned in mid-September I noticed many subtle changes: The overcast sky painted the water and mountains in silvery gray hues, while off-white bands of clouds clinging to the contoured mountainsides offset the darkened landscape. Gone were the purple-and-orange barn swallows that had incessantly darted around the lodge, feeding their babies who waited impatiently in mud nests tucked under the eaves. These were now replaced by dozens of harbor seals that lined the protective logs floating in front of the lodge. As before, only the shrill bald eagles' cries that echoed off the steep mountainsides broke the otherwise soothing silence.
An hour after I arrived, my estuary boat tour spotted a grizzly bear, a black bear, two bald eagles, dozens of harbor seals, a blue heron and three humpback whales. Not bad for our first excursion. But nothing could surpass the excitement I felt at the grizzly viewing stands. Cameras in hand, my small group stood quietly only a few dozen feet away from a procession of grizzlies and their cubs that patiently stalked — and occasionally ate — the salmon that dared to throw themselves against the frothy rapids. During one early morning outing, we counted 12 bears, most with cubs, encircling our viewing stand. We felt completely safe but close enough to the bears to get the kind of photos I had dreamed about.
My U.K. dinner companions, Rod and Sarah Benson, best summed up why this lodge is so popular: "Everything here is so well organized; the staff is really friendly and hardworking; we love the fun, enjoyable atmosphere. And the animals and nature we've seen have been beyond our expectations."
While I have to confess that my second visit was my favorite, the truth is that anyone looking for a "nature Shangri-La" will find it at Knight Inlet Lodge.
WHEN YOU GO
Knight Inlet Lodge: www.grizzlytours.com, 250-337-1953.
Doug Hansen is a freelance writer and photographer. Find more photos and articles at www.hansentravel.org or at Instagram: doug6636. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.